Bits of Nick Southall’s latest Stylus essay fits comfortably into a growing trend, anxiety over download culture and the hyperconsumption it allows. The cynic in me suggests that critics worry about this new world because it’s harder to find a place for paid music criticism in it (beyond the most bare-bones get-this-or-don’t listmaking). My more open-minded side is alert to the probability that things are being lost as listening becomes ‘casualised’.

“When I was 11 I would listen constantly to Misplaced Childhood by Marillion and I adored it, when I was 15 it was The Stone Roses, when I was 20 it was XTRMNTR; at 24 I listened to more records than I either care to or am able to remember, and I recall barely anything of any of them.” It’s a disservice to just quote this part of Nick’s essay, because the paragraphs following interrogate this nostalgia with typical subtlety. But this is the bit the Stylus comments box section seems to have picked up on, and this is the bit that I seem to have seen in one form or another several times recently, a lament for the loss of a particular mode of listening in the face of an apparent avalanche of mere hearing.

So I thought, when I used to listen to particular records over and over again, why did I do it? Some of the reasons – not all conscious – would have included:

1. lack of options: I couldn’t afford many other records so had to listen more often to the ones I did have.
2. enjoyment: I liked hearing the songs enough that I didn’t feel much of a need to listen to others.
3. an attempt to recapture a moment: listening to the songs gave me an echo of a feeling of intense excitement and discovery I had when first hearing them.
4. identification: I related strongly to the songs and used them almost ritualistically to shape and shore up my identity.
5. socialisation: I was aware that my fandom of a particular band or record defined me socially and so took part in that fandom to define or maintain that identity.
5a. pseudo-socialisation: in the absence of actual communication with other fans, listening to the records allowed membership of an imagined community.
6. comfort: self-explanatory, and found more easily in the familiar than the strange.
7. exploration: I detected something profound – musically or even philosophically – in the records and wanted to listen more to understand it better.

So what’s changed for me, and how much of it is attributable to age or experience rather than changes in consumption patterns? 1 is clearly irrelevant now – it was a negative reason to listen anyway and vanishes when circumstances change. 2 and 6 (enjoyment and comfort) are linked and remain a part of what I get out of music, though probably my patience is less now, I wear songs out more quickly. 5 still applies, though my social consumption of music is more positive now and less fearful, and because it mostly happens in the context of DJing a fairly rapid turnover of favourites is encouraged. 5a has genuinely been wiped out by the internet – I can’t imagine a kid now being unable to get in touch with other fans of a band. Unwilling, maybe. 3 – the recapture of a moment – happens less, because the moments of revelation happen less: I’ve heard a lot more music, and I’m more familiar with my own reactions, and so I surprise myself less often.

That leaves 4 and 7 – identification and exploration. I don’t feel the same strong identification with music very often any more, but I don’t want to either – it has its unhealthy aspects. I do love the way music can let you step into a mood, a feeling, a situation, and then take it off like a costume three minutes later – but this way of using music is improved by variety listening. As for 7, I’ve come to realise that my ear is too cloth to ‘get’ a lot of the musical activity in a complex track, and I’ve also come to realise that – in my opinion – most of the ‘profundity’ in a piece of music gives itself up pretty quickly. In one way this is circular – I find attempted depth tiresome, so I listen to ‘shallow’ music, so I find less depth, etc.

The point of all this being that when I actually analyse it the changes in how I listen to music are mostly down to changes in me, not in the way I consume it. I’ve been an evangelist for “dilettantism” and P2P not because it has changed the way I listened, but because it’s proved so fantastically appropriate for the changes that were already happening. If I was 16, though, reasons 2 to 7 would still apply, and I would still listen obsessively to favourite records despite all the soulseeks in the world. The only thing that would have changed is the etiquette of sharing or hoarding my obsessions (and so how to define the ‘other’ to my fandom) and the social element.